Think you’ve got the measure of the Haribo gummy bear? Think again. Behind that loveable face is a company that buys out rivals and takes its competitors to court. And we bet you didn’t know what country he’s from…
On the basis of Haribo’s name, cloying jingles, predilection for luridly coloured branding and corporate preoccupation with cutesy anthropomorphism, it would be the easiest of mistakes to assume the sweet manufacturer to be Japanese.
The hitherto unacquainted consumer of Haribo’s produce, on being told that this is not the case, would probably – at least if basing his or her guesswork on national stereotypes – be a while before punting on Germany as the country of origin.
But the clue is in the name (no, really): Haribo is a portmanteau assembled from the first syllables of the names of the company’s founder, Hans Riegel, and his hometown of Bonn. In 1920, Riegel, then a 27-year-old confectioner, started out under his own steam with a sack of sugar, a copper kettle, a slab of marble and a roller. In 1922, he had an idea for an ursine fruit gum. Just over 90 years later, on whatever day you’re reading this, the company’s 15 factories in 10 European countries – five of them in Germany – will produce (according to Haribo’s own best guess) 100 million gummy bears, which will be consumed in 105 countries.
They will not, however, be munched anywhere more enthusiastically than they are at home: according to a 2006 study by the German confectionery industry, the average German consumes 3.49kg of gummy sweets annually. The habit, according to Haribo, is not beneath the most eminent of Germans: it claims Albert Einstein, Konrad Adenauer and Kaiser Wilhelm II as famous former fans.
For all that Haribo is now a global behemoth that employs 6,000 staff, it remains very much a family business. After Hans Riegel died in 1945, aged 52, Haribo was taken over by his sons, Hans Jr and Paul, following their return from Russian pow camps (Haribo hastens to stress that both men were serving as medics and that Haribo did not produce military materiel during the war). Hans Jr, now 90, still runs the company – and writes its television commercials, apparently unconvinced that any advertising agency knows the market better than he. Paul managed Haribo’s production until he died in 2009, upon which his role was inherited by his son, Hans Guido Riegel (Hans Arndt Riegel, a further grandson of Haribo’s founder, is the chairman of Haribo’s supervisory board). Haribo also maintains this creed of continuity in its advertising: German television personality Thomas Gottschalk, spruiking for Haribo since 1991, has been accredited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-serving brand spokesman.
Haribo is not just about small gelatinous bears. Its oppressively cheerful packaging freights dozens of varieties of sweet, among them a range of marshmallows (Chamallows), an assortment of liquorices (including salted, allsorts and bat-shaped), barely countable configurations of fruit gum, opinion dividers such as the face-puckeringly fizzy Tangfastics and the venerable Maoam range of fruit chews.
The selection is sufficient to fill shops on its own and indeed it does: between the Bären-Treff, Bärenland and Bears & Friends stores there are more than 75 outlets specialising in gummy bears. There is also a Haribo museum in the French town of Uzès; a Disney cartoon series called Adventures of the Gummi Bears ran between 1985 and 1991. An entirely dreadful novelty tune called I’m a Gummy Bear (The Gummy Bear Song), by an understandably anonymous perpetrator trading as Gummibär, was a hit in 2007: the English-language version alone has been watched nearly 300 million times on YouTube, apparently voluntarily. The gummy bear has even been appropriated as a medium by artists: YaYa Chou sculpts in them; Johannes Cordes paints in them.
If it seems baffling to outsiders that the affections of Germans could have been colonised so thoroughly by a product so whimsical, it’s less surprising to people who have got to know the country and the people. “One of the most inexplicable characteristics of the Germans is their love of kitsch,” says Rory MacLean, the Canada-born, Berlin-based travel writer who is due to publish a book about his adopted hometown next year. “To me, it remains incomprehensible that a people who can design the Porsche 911 and sleek, white ice trains, who created the Bauhaus and speak at least three languages at birth, want to own twee Christmas figurines painted in gaudy colours, dress up in Bavarian lederhosen and eat Haribo gummy bears.” Haribo does, at least, observe national traditions of efficiency in how it sells, if not in what it sells.
It has expanded steadily over the decades, buying out German rivals including Kleutgen & Meier (1957), Dr Hillers (1979), Edmund Münster & Co (1986) and wesa (the latter, formerly owned by the East German state of Saxony, was snapped up mere months after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Internationally, Haribo has bought some or all of France’s Lorette (1967), Britain’s Dunhills (1972), Austria’s Panuli Bonbon (1988), Italy’s Sidas Dolciaria (1990), Belgium’s Dulcia (1996), Spain’s Geldul (1998), Holland’s Hoepman (2000) and Turkey’s Pamir Gida Sanayi (2001), among others.
Haribo is fiercely protective of what it has built – roused, the company is more grizzly than gummy. In December 2012, Haribo won a lawsuit against Swiss chocolatier Lindt, who dared to take to market a chocolate bear wrapped in gold foil. It says much about Haribo’s dominance that Lindt’s own lawyers floated the argument that Haribo was so well known that it was scarcely imaginable anyone could confuse the two brands.
1920 Haribo founded
1922 First bear-shaped sweet produced
1925 Haribo begins making liquorice products
1933 Bonn plant completed
1946 Hans Riegel Jr and Paul Riegel take over after the death of their father, Hans Riegel
1962 First advertisements broadcast on German television
1967 Goldbären – Golden Bears – registered as a trademark by German Patent Office
1982 Haribo opens a US sales office in Baltimore
1991 Thomas Gottschalk becomes brand spokesman
1996 Haribo museum opens in Uzès, France
2009 Paul Riegel dies
2012 Haribo fined €2.4m by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office for improperly sharing sales information with rivals